Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Challenge to Developers: Use Check-In to Save Lives

kastrup airport.jpgI am not in the habit of issuing challenges to developers. (This is, in fact, the first time I've done so.) But this is one of those instances in which a day's, or a week's, effort by a good dev or two could save lives.

Here's the situation: I have an acquaintance who has asked me to check in via email every now and then to make sure he has not been taken by the security forces of his country. He lives in one of the countries of the Arab Spring where the official resistance is very strong to the innovations coursing through society. This is not the first time I've been asked to do this and every time I do so I am honored by the request.


sanaa protest.jpgWhen I ran the Committee to Protect Bloggers, I was asked by a prominent Malaysian blogger to check in on a certain schedule with him because he had news he was going to be interrogated. He was, I did, and he was freed. He has since become a senator. Another friend, a Syrian dissident very active in creating online properties and tools to guard minority rights in the Middle East asked me the same thing, for the same reason. His experiences were harsher and more protracted and he was later forced to flee to the U.S.

All three of these examples were of people with a number of global connections to people who had bullhorns of their own, blogs, organizations, newspapers and so on. Had one of these people gone missing, those of us keeping tabs on them would have never stopped screaming: to our friends, to journalists, to NGOs, to human rights non-profits and to governments. As I've said before, tyrants abhor attention.

But what if you didn't have such contacts, or people, being human, dropped the ball on you, or who knows what else? Well, if you had a specially-designed check-in app on your phone, you could alert people to your situation automatically.

The app I'm challenging developers to build would need a number of tools and qualities to work.


A user should be able to set up a profile so that it would expressly set out what actions should be taken when and how their continued disappearance should escalate those actions. Check-in frequency should also be automated so that, for instance, after one day of not checking in, an alert goes out. After a week, the information is released to the media, or at least to a contact-group that would in turn contact the media. It should be as granular as possible.


Check-in apps can give the very people you're seeking to avoid a way to track you. So this app would need to have an anonymizing feature built in, perhaps a random number assignment with each account. At a certain customizable level, the user name is released.


Given the possible life-or-death results of a breach, the app would have to be airtight, with every possible security measure taken, from encryption to coherent data sharing policy.

homs protest.jpg


This is a challenge, and the first part of the challenge is to think it out prior to writing one scintilla of code. So I am hoping that the least I get from this challenge is you, chiming in and sounding off. Is this a thing that can be automated? Is there already a tool out there doing the same thing, something I've missed? Given the risks, is it even something that should be automated? I think so, but I'd like to hear your input, especially if you're not an unmarried marriage counselor like me.

Airport photo by A., Sana'a photo by Sallam, Homs photo by Syriana


Dido Joss Stone Majandra Delfino Maria Bello Jennifer Gareis

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